Friday, February 26, 2010

Everybody wins

One day, not very many years ago, a former mayor of Tucson decided to set aside a chunk of land in the nearby town of Marana -- 300 acres, I believe -- to be preserved and protected from development. It would be managed by the Parks & Recreation Department and would include hiking trails, an amphitheater, and other amenities. Someone decided that the Marana plot, part of the historically agricultural Santa Cruz Valley, should also feature a farm. But they didn't have any farmers on staff.

Across town, a group of folks at Tucson's Community Food Bank (CFB) had decided to set up a program to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income mothers and children (those qualifying for WIC). The problem was that they didn't have enough donations of fresh produce or a place to grow it themselves. They were looking for land.

The two groups came together and the Marana Farm at the Heritage River Park was born. (Does anyone else have the Brady Bunch theme song in their head?) The 10-acre working organic farm is run by a small staff of young women employed by CFB plus a few interns and AmeriCorps volunteers. The non-profit is supported by a steady stream of donations and grants that supplement sales of the farm's produce at local markets. Maintenance needs are handled by the Park staff. It's a charmed existence, but rather than congratulating themselves on their luck the folks at Marana Farm are eager to share their resources and good fortune with the larger community. (And the community members have been flooding in since Disney started offering free 1-day passes to their parks for folks who volunteer at local charitable organizations. The farm's generally had a steady stream of volunteers prior, but there's been a huge uptick in families coming out to weed the spinach beds lately. I have mixed feelings on the Disney incentive, but it does seem to get a lot of local folks out into their communities and helping out for a few hours. I'm hoping at least a handful return post-Epcot Center.)

What is really exciting to me is the way everything seems to come together here in such a serendipitous way. There is an abundance of donated tools, seeds, and volunteer time. People with needed skills just kind of show up. On our drive to Marana this morning, one of the farmers (Maggie) told me of an when she was given the task of building a greenhouse. She had little construction experience and was feeling anxious about undertaking the project. Into the farm office walked a rather muscular woman needing to fulfill some community service hours (due to a weapons charge) who happened to be a professional greenhouse builder. Presto! -- the greenhouse was built.

[I know: weapons charge?? Right. We are in Arizona, where a startlingly literal interpretation of the right to bear arms just led to legislation permitting weapons to be carried into bars. I wonder if one can exercise his or her second amendment right and bring their weapons into the courtroom for the hearing following the inevitable gunslinging bar brawl.]

The farm is a model of community cooperation, and seems to have great relationships with local businesses, from the Marana WIC clinic to the Cottonwood thrift shop to the Marana food bank (though the farm works out of the Tucson food bank) to area farms. The different entities share extra resources when possible. A few examples: the farm brings boxes of broccoli or turnips not sold at the farm stand to the local (Marana) food bank; the food bank offers use of their computer printer or broken sacks of birdseed donated from Walmart; the farm donates organic seed to home gardeners and struggling farms in the area; the local Rotary Club chapter helps fund the food forest on the farm property. Everybody shares, everybody wins.

There is some discussion of the farm moving in a more education-focused direction (rather than, say, beginning a CSA program or scaling up to grow for more farmers' markets). While there are currently a number of educational programs offered in the form of workshops (and CFB after-school nutrition sessions), the farm staff hope to develop more formal lessons that align with the local school curricula and focus more on school groups. A working educational farm that taps into the various talents and resources within the community? Sounds like something we could use in my own home town....

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting there

Phoenix is not what one might call a sustainable city. (Or perhaps I should say the Greater Phoenix Area, lumping in Peoria, Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, and Mesa, which, incidentally, took Aaron and I a full day to bike across. Basically, I consider the area to be about 60 miles from one end to the other: the northern tippy-top of Peoria where Aunt Cami lives to where we camped in Lost Dutchman State Park, a bit northeast of Mesa, AZ.) The urban sprawl is not at all conducive to efficiency, with one strip mall after another lining the seemingly endless roads and no way to safely walk between them. Impossible to navigate on foot. Cars everywhere. Large front lawns in the desert. Portland would be scandalized at the lack of composting, the abuse of such a precious resource as water, and relative absence of public transit options outside of Tempe in this sprawling metropolis.

Even so, there are folks working to transform Phoenix. There are few buses but a fair number of bike lanes and even a decent bike trail along the canal that took me well over 20 miles across the city. There is a basic recycling program with curbside pickup. And closest to my heart, farmers' markets are on the rise. I had the opportunity to check three of these out during my time in the area last week -- one on Wednesday evening and two on Saturday morning. There were some striking differences between these and other markets I've explored around the country thus far.

The first market I visited was the Wednesday evening "Twilight" market in Glendale. (Incidentally, it was in the same plaza where I got a little salsa dancing in the following night -- woo hoo!) As Aunt Cami, Aaron, and I wandered about, I noted a higher proportion of packaged foods -- jams, barbecue sauces, cheeses, chocolate, crackers -- than most other farmers' markets I'd been to. One egg booth, one seafood stand, one beef/lamb seller, an apple cider vendor, and a handful of vegetable growers filled out the docket. While the quality of the items was consistently good, and all produce was grown without the aid of lab-manufactured pesticides or fertilizers, I was surprised by the general lack of knowledge of some of the sellers. They couldn't tell me what kinds of onions they were selling at one booth, nor the variety of mushrooms at another. I don't mean to sound critical here: I'm fairly certain that the market is one of the newer ones I've visited and I suspect this unfamiliarity will change as local consumers become more educated about their food and begin to ask more questions. Whatever varieties they were, the mystery veggies were fabulous in the quiches we made a few days later.

Fast forwarding to Saturday morning, we checked out the 20-year-old Roadrunner Farmers' Market, which featured mostly produce (with a few prepared items), all of which was either certified organic or naturally grown -- a strict requirement, I learned from Mara, one of the local market organizers -- and sold by cheerful, knowledgeable farmers. After picking up some veggies, I had a chance to speak with Kathy (a farmer and farm market manager here at the area's largest and oldest market) about the EBT and WIC initiatives. She explained how customers and farmers are growing more comfortable with the programs that seek to make fresh, local food accessible to low-income populations in the area. The way it works is as follows:

1. Customers choose eligible items at the farmers' market. (WIC recently has expanded to include fresh fruits and veggies.)
2. Farmers fill out a ticket for the items and put them aside.
3. Customers take the tickets to the farm market manager who swipes their EBT/WIC card. (The cost of machine rental is covered by the market; credit and debit card transactions are also possible for a small fee.)
4. Customers return to the farm stand, present the receipt, and collect their produce.
5. The farm market manager -- in this case, Kathy -- tallies up each farmer's sales and hands each a check for their total the following week.

Simple, right? And efficient. The same set-up appeared to exist at the Downtown Market, which we visited later in the morning. Couldn't we have a widespread system like this in DC? My understanding during my visits to various markets in my hometown and many other markets around the country is that only a fraction have EBT/WIC-ready terminals, and the reimbursement process is so slow and cumbersome as to deter many farmers from accepting vouchers. It's often simply not an option. (There are success stories like the senior program in Ohio I learned of a few months back.)

After nearly 10 months on the road, and after a friend recently requested a summary of some of my findings thus far, I'm starting to reflect on larger trends and unique solutions to common challenges around the country with an eye to implications for the DC area, where I hope to return in about four months' time. Phoenix may have a long way to go, but there's much to learn from the work being done in this desert city. It's getting there.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Evil will always triumph because good is dumb

Okay, admittedly I've been looking for an excuse to use one of my favorite lines from "Spaceballs" for some time. ("Bikeable feast: the flame thrower" was too hard to work in. Maybe "Bikeable feast: the beercan stove." Kind of catchy, isn't it? Okay, back on point....) Well, yesterday as I passed a Mobil gas station, a Walmart, and a McDonalds crossing the border into Arizona, the opportunity to ruminate on the line in a blog posting presented itself....

There are a few empires that some liberals who will remain nameless might consider pure evil: Cargill, Monsanto, the pharmaceutical industry, ExxonMobil. Some might propose that these profit-driven, to-hell-with-humanity-and-the-planet businesses have no redeeming qualities. I am not addressing those particular industries, but a few who inhabit the next tier down: Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart. These are corporations that have been crushing local communities for at least the past decade. They are crumbling, but not quickly enough for my taste. (Oops. I'm one of those liberals.) And yet -- and yet! -- they possess a few qualities that I have found to be helpful along my current journey. (Hey, when I'm biking through the desert -- food desert and otherwise -- I'm forced to make a little lemonade from the lemons I'm presented with. Mmm, fresh, cold lemonade.)

Starbucks may have squeezed most mom and pop java joints out of business in hundreds of towns across the country, spread abroad and desecrated the Forbidden City with the construction of a coffee shop within its walls (I almost cried when I saw this on a visit to Beijing back in 2002; I would not have deigned to sip a latte there for all the tea in...nevermind). The shops sell pretty pricey coffee, very little of which is fair trade (and with the amount of coffee the collective shops sell they have the potential to be a major player in reforming the coffee industry if they went strictly the fair trade route, but alas, no such luck), and go through disposable cups like nobody's business. However, they do have dependably nice bathrooms, free wifi, and a decent $1.50 espresso that one can sip very slowly while waiting for rainstorm #3 of the day to pass. And they don't seem to care how many packets of raw sugar and napkins I stuff into my pockets.

McDonalds may be -- with support from KFC, Taco Bell, and the rest of the fast food giants -- driving our country toward even more atrocious rates of obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes, but the folks working at these fast food stops will fill up your water bottles for free and I'll be damned if they don't have clean bathrooms. In fact, I recall reading in one of my Lonely Planet travel guides a few years back that around the globe McDonalds has consistently clean bathrooms. I would wash my hair in those sinks. (In fact, I have.) I'm not sure I'd walk around barefoot in there, though.

And finally, perhaps the most notorious of all is Walmart. Fair wages and benefits for employees have been points of contention in recent years, and they may only have carried one single organic food item in the entire Parker, AZ store (a 16 ounce tub of Stoneyfield Farm vanilla yoghurt) in spite of all the press about the chain carrying organic products, but it's also a place where one can buy clean underwear (socks and underwear are where I draw the line for thrift store shopping) and camp in the parking lot for free (I just learned this the other day). I saw a number of RVs in the lot yesterday afternoon but I still had another 30 miles to bike so I kept going. (As for the underwear, I was desperate. Three days left until I would get to Aunt Cami's house with the blessed washer-dryer and the repeated handwashing of undergarments just wasn't cutting it in the desert. At $7.50 for a 3-pack, I'm hardly holding up the Walmart empire. Even so, perhaps I should do a little penance. Ash Wednesday is tomorrow....)

I'm not endorsing these groups. Hardly. But there are ways to use the fringe benefits the corporate giants offer as we spend the majority of our dollars elsewhere -- at local coffee shops, restaurants, farmers' markets, and food co-ops. Ha! Take that! Good will eventually triumph... and in the meantime I've got a handful of sugar packets to sweeten my lemonade.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things that go clackety-clackety-tok-tok-brrrrr-click in the night

[If Bill Bryson were writing this, it might be entitled "A Walk in the Sands."]

So I think I've mentioned that I didn't grow up camping. It's true. My friend Mike taught me how to pitch the tent I bought from him a few weeks before I left DC. I had a funny conversation with my mom a few months ago during which I explained how to pee in the woods. (Then I changed the subject before things got really personal.) Last night was my first time doing "backcountry camping." I had no choice: there were no campgrounds along the 120 miles I would need to traverse on my way East before the next town. What this means is I registered with the ranger station and told them roughly where I'd be and then, so long as I was a mile from the road, I was free to camp where I liked. Packing in my food and water, packing out my trash. And, yes, peeing in the...sand. Not a decent sized tree in sight to preserve my modesty.

Let me tell you, backcountry camping in Joshua Tree is amazingly peaceful. Nobody around for miles and miles. Which is good, because I could strip down and rinse off a bit with no worry of curious passers-by. It is also terrifying. Take the holes I kept seeing all over the sand as I dragged a fully loaded Ollie uphill (of course it was uphill...) for about half a mile (sorry Mr. Park Ranger, but I about died trying to slog through the sand with Ollie's tires sinking about 3 inches deep the whole trek, I couldn't make it a whole mile) before making camp. What the heck lives in them? From photos I'd glanced over at the visitors' center 40 miles back in civilization, there were many possibilities. Were they inhabited by:

a) kangaroo mice
b) rattlesnakes
c) hairy scorpions
d) tarantulas

Eep. I looked for a clearing without any of these mystery holes, but the best I could do was about a 6-foot radius of clearance. After pitching my tent and cooking up a hearty dinner on the beercan stove -- some artichoke hummus I'd picked up at the morning's Joshua Tree farmers' market mixed in with boiled quinoa, sprouted legumes, and broccoli (much better than tonight's cheese and cracker dinner) -- I crawled into my tent. I read for a bit, wrote a few postcards (including yours, Sean), and decided to hit the hay. I'd sit out and look at the stars, as it was a beautiful night, but you know, I was nervous about whatever was in those holes -- and they were everywhere! -- coming out of them. As I began to fall asleep, I was jerked back into acute alertness when the mystery clackety-clacking started.

It went on for quite some time and there were definitely multiple clackers. Were they plotting my imminent demise? Or were they simply trying to figure out a way into my tent to get to the food bag? Maybe they were discussing my masterful tent pitching skills. I hoped it was the latter. And I hoped it was option "a" on the multiple choice. I'd seen a few kangaroo mice at the Black Rock Canyon campground the previous night. They were actually pretty cute. But I don't recall any clackety-clacking then.

My only run-in to date with a scorpion was a couple years back when I was hiking through Nicaragua and decided to spring for a night at an Ecolodge. (For those unfamiliar, an "Ecolodge" in Latin America means "a place where hippie tourists pay more for a room" and the only difference I could discern, in retrospect, between this and a regular hostel was the lack of cutting the grass to a reasonable height, which led to more critters being around.) When I went into my little bathroom to use the loo, a giant grey scorpion as long as my forearm was scuttling about in the sink. I yelped and bolted back to the front desk, at which point the owner nonchalantly strolled back to my room (with me scurrying behind at a safe distance), picked the writhing monster up by the tail with a pair of scissors, and tossed it into the (tall) grass not 20 feet from my door. I don't think I slept that night.

Later on during the same backpacking trip, I had my first encounter with a tarantula. I was on a night hike through the Amazon jungle in Ecuador and my guide pointed it out, perched on a banana tree not 50 feet from my cabin. I should mention the door to the cabin had a good 2-inch gap at the bottom. I didn't sleep that night, either.

Last night, like an old school Sicilian grandmother, I slept with the chef's knife close at hand. By the time I awoke -- or, rather, emerged from my tent at sunrise, as I'm not sure I slept all that much -- there was no trace of the nocturnal marauders, whomever they were. All that remained were the mystery holes.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Amid the pouring rain, my plans to work with a young farmer starting up a CSA in Santa Barbara fell through last weekend. The fields were soaked; I was bummed. When a door closes, though, a window often opens -- in this case, my new friends Joel and Becca guided me toward Ojai, CA, where I was to experience an amazing farmers' market, spend time with John and Jody's wonderful family, discover an innovative school, and learn about diesel engines powered by vegetable oil. Did I see any of this coming? Nope. But I'm so glad Joel set things in motion when he stood in the pouring rain outside my tent at El Capitan State Park to invite me to have a cup of coffee last Friday morning....

As I sat in their warm, dry trailer for a spell and scarfed a bagel and cream cheese, Joel and his wife Rebecca invited me to join them for a jaunt into Santa Barbara. In town, Joel introduced me to John, who runs Java Jones (an organic, fair trade coffee joint), and who, over a lovely cup of joe and a chat about what I'm up to, told me about his daughters' school in Ojai that focuses on creativity, conflict resolution skills, and environmental education. Well, there's a lot more going on at Oak Grove School, but I was most excited to learn of these elements as well as the garden plot each class nurtures and the school's local, seasonal, fresh vegetarian food served daily. (Michelle Obama's school lunchroom dream come true.) Three days later I found myself in Jane and Maisy's second grade class giving a talk. The kids were awesome, enthusiastically asking me about everything from how many miles I bike per day to what I do when it rains to if I ever get tired to how I do my laundry. We talked about food, too. After a tour of their garden, I joined the class for a delicious lunch at the covered picnic table area and we continued to chat about cycling, camping, nutrition, and some of our favorite foods. Those were some sharp, veggie-powered brains. Here's a post-lunch shot of Ollie and I with the class.

Many have made compelling arguments for vegetarianism, and it is a core value espoused by Oak Grove School. Even setting aside Jonathan Safran Foer's argument about the inherent cruelty of meat production, authors from Michael Pollan to Eric Schlosser posit that it requires less energy to produce vegetables and grain in comparison to raising animals for meat. This is one of the points I've often heard raised by environmentally and socially-motivated vegetarians. (I'm still hoping to get my hands on a used copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's latest -- "Eating Animals" -- and not just because dad told me about a hilarious interview he recently did on the Colbert Report involving bacon. I've been wanting to read it for a few months now.) Collectively, Americans would all do well to cut down on our meat consumption, in terms of both portions and frequency. But this is not a post extolling vegetarianism. There are other ways we can embrace a more plant-based existence, and one of these ways may pleasantly surprise you.

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you've no doubt heard the catchphrase "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse." Most people think this refers to cans and bottles and plastic bags. And it often does. But what about fuel? As folks are crippled by how much it costs to fill up their Volkswagens these days, many are saying it's about time we started supporting alternative means of transportation (public transit, bike lanes) and promoting alternative fuel sources. One of the coolest solutions I've come across recently involves making fuel out of used vegetable oil.

It's not science fiction. Joel and his wife have been converting diesel engines to run on veg for about a decade: One day he looked at the back of a bottle of vegetable oil and noticed the "contents may burn" warning and he got to thinking.... He's successfully converted thousands of vehicles, I learned during a series of conversations over the past few days, and he's darn good at it. (He's proud of his work without being pompous.) I get the impression he's been wielding a wrench pretty much since he could walk and he may be the only person I have ever met who knows the intricacies of engines as well as my car-obsessed brother. As I understand it, the converted engines work much like a hybrid, allowing drivers to easily switch between diesel and vegetable oil fuel tanks en route. Only veg-powered systems are more efficient than ethanol, and cleaner burning. And the trucks are fast. (No, really. They race 'em.) And the systems recycle used restaurant vegetable oil that, at least as far as I know, would otherwise just be dumped.

Free fuel! Recycling! Less carcinogens! I'm in! I'm certainly Ollie-bound for the foreseeable future, but down the line if I go looking for a car, you'd better believe I'll be looking for a veg-powered system.

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Making the grade

So, I am pretty new to cycling. I'm still undecided on the correct pronunciation of "panniers"; I still get nervous that I'm going to tip over at a stoplight clipped in on a loaded bike. On the other hand, I have been excited to be the one helping someone else change their tire tube (lord knows I have experience wielding a tire iron); I've been the one lending maps to cyclists going in the opposite direction and recommending campsites. I'm getting there.

In spite of the number of miles under Ollie's tires, I am still learning the language and culture of the biking world. And the math. If my bike computer tells me I'm biking at roughly 12mph, why do I only make it about 7 miles in an hour? Oh. Right. The snack breaks. And the hills. One thing that I'd heard seasoned cyclists talk about often when I was back at the bike shop during the weeks leading up to my departure from DC was this or that "insane climb for x number of miles at an x% grade...." What the heck was "percent grade"? 2 miles at 8%? I had some vague sense that this was meant to be impressive, perhaps something I should know before setting out. I was too shy to ask.

Not long after I departed, I believe it was somewhere early on in my battle with the Appalachians, I began to recognize these truck-pointing-downhill signs. (Usually the signposts were back over my shoulder, facing traffic heading down a hill I had just dragged a fully loaded Ollie up.) More recently, I learned that percent grade simply refers to the slope of a hill. So a 7% grade means a rise (or fall) of 7 feet for every 100 feet of forward travel. That doesn't sound so bad, right? Except that it is. (Ollie, back me up here.)

My god, if I ever meet the man who designed Highway 1, or any of his descendants, I'm going to punch 'em in the nose. The 5-mile uphill stretch going into Redwood National Forest back in northern California? 6-7% grade. How about Big Sur? Ditto, with screaming downhill lengths cramping my brake-gripping muscles as intensely as the narrow, twisting, murderous uphill stretches wore out my legs. I mean, who *does* that? Didn't anyone think about the math?

Say a cyclist bikes 13.5 miles uphill on an unknown but constant grade (x), and 2.5 miles downhill at a 7% grade. Assuming equal elevation at the starting and ending points (total distance biked is 16 miles -- that's the bottom of your triangle), what was the uphill grade?

You know how real life math problems are all the rage in education? This is a real life example: even without taking into account the unflagging headwinds or knowing exactly how much weight I was hauling the ride south from Lompoc 2 days ago was intense. My question is: how intense? There was a cute, sweater-vested math teacher at the school where I used to teach whom I might've asked if I'd come across this problem a year ago. Since he's not around, I'll ask my fearless readers. Go on, break out your pencils and your calculators. How intense *was* it? Whomever posts the correct answer for the percent grade on the way up that thirteen-and-a-half-mile-long incline gets a postcard from Joshua Tree when I get there. (And if math isn't your forte, fear not. I used to tell my students to do their best. If they couldn't think of the right answer, if they could make me laugh I'd give them partial credit.)

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

An inconvenient question

I've grown up debating. It's part of how my family works: in the midst of every major life decision, whether it's where to go to college or whether to take a job abroad or why the heck I am leaving a paying job to bicycle myself around the country, there's been a debate. Before engaging in any of these discussions, I learned quite young to come with my points and my evidence and my answers to anticipated questions. And there were always multiple sessions with follow-up questions and character witnesses, between which the courtroom participants broke for snacks and deliberation. Anyone speaking up for another family member being grilled on the witness stand -- usually the dinner table -- was accused of being a public defender. Mom used to say I should've gone to law school. (Now she's proud I didn't.)

The other night included yet another chapter in a series of phone debates between dad and I on the importance of sustainable food. Dad gets most of it -- less chemicals; better treatment of land, animals, and workers; mindful water use -- but I have yet to convince the judge why it's important to change our behaviors to support a better food system. How our individual choices make a difference. The item on the evening's docket: seafood. Dad had read my post on the Seafood Watch guide and while he's not out to actively destroy the planet he made some strongly worded points about the inconvenience of shopping and eating sustainably. "How am I supposed to know how the tuna on the menu was caught?" he argued. "Do you really think the guy at the Giant knows where the shrimp came from?"

"Well," I answered, "Ask. If they can't tell you, choose something else."

Now, let me reiterate here that I am not a purist. I eat things sometimes that are not local, not in season, and, yes, even sometimes not sustainable. Am I to turn down the friendly offer of barbecue from the next campsite over? No. But I do try my best, especially when I am paying for it. If there's something on the menu or at the store that might be questionable, I ask about it. If I don't get a good enough answer and there is another option, I choose something else. "Is the chicken local? Is it free-range?" or "Do you know where the shrimp come from? Are they wild or farmed?" If there's no option to have a free-range turkey at Thanksgiving, consider me a vegetarian.

I can't unlearn what I know, and I cannot (and would not choose to) divorce what I am learning from how I live my life. I actually get physically anxious throwing something that could be composted into the trash when I'm at someone else's house. (It's true.) There will no doubt be growing pains as I continue to become a more knowledgeable consumer. If dad's happy about how inexpensive steak is at the supermarket, or how cheap Alaskan crab legs are on sale this week, how do I explain without coming across as self-righteous that food *shouldn't* be that cheap? That supermarket chains are not charging us for the true (health and environmental) costs. That if we paid a fairer price for more humanely produced meat, it would cost more. Too expensive? Eat less of it. Look at how relatively inexpensive organically grown kale is. (And I know you love that massaged kale salad....)

I am not a doom and gloom kind of person -- ask anyone -- and I actually look at making more positive food choices as something joyful. Instead of looking at food and grumbling about what you're passing up, how about reveling in what you can happily enjoy with your conscience as well as your tastebuds? "Yay, strawberries are in season again!" or "Maybe I should try a glass of this organic cabernet and sample some raw, local sheep's milk cheese." or "Oh, look, farmed oysters are in the 'enjoy' column on the Seafood Watch guide. Another reason to indulge in oysters." I can go on like this all night....

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Something fishy

I've spoken with a good many people recently about "the true cost of food." Often, the topic comes up during a conversation with someone I've met along my journey who is new to the idea of sustainable food, and I, in an attempt to explain what the heck it is I'm doing (and why), invariably bumble about trying to articulate what "sustainable" even means. It's a definition in progress, to be sure, but it takes into account not only the production costs (seed/animals, water, labor, equipment) but environmental (chemical runoff, soil health, erosion), distribution (petroleum-based, usually), and human health costs as well. It's all related, sure, but as I headed further down the California coastline I was about to discover how our food-related behaviors impact not only the land but our oceans as well (and the amazingly diverse undersea world that inhabits 3/4 of the earth covered by water).

After a day and a half in Salinas (the self-proclaimed "salad bowl for the world" where I curiously had a salad made from local Earthbound Farms' romaine lettuce imported from Mexico) getting over a cold, Ollie and I made our way to Monterey Bay with the hope of checking out the fabulous Aquarium. Back in Seattle, where I had started researching sustainable seafood, I'd come across Seafood Watch -- a guide put out by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium that clarifies which varieties of fish and shellfish should be enjoyed and which should be avoided. The recommendations are based largely on the methods used to catch the animals, but also take into account things like if a species is being overfished or if there is a high likelihood of heavy metal consumption. (I'm not talking tuna listening to Iron Maiden, mind you. Mercury, mostly.) I had the good fortune to meet with Alison, one of the members of the Aquarium's communications team who had been involved with the publication of the Seafood Watch guide. A lifelong ecology educator, she gave me a bit of background on the program and pointed out a few key exhibits pertaining to sustainability and food.

As Alison departed for an afternoon meeting, I wandered over to the "Real Cost Cafe," where I was both entertained and educated by the interactive diner exhibit. Each menu item on the touchscreen monitors prompted a brief mini video montage about the costs behind ordering wild salmon, farmed shrimp, oysters, and more. I learned, for instance, there is something called "bycatch" that refers to the unintended victims of a fishing haul. Methods like "long-lining" -- which employ sometimes multiple miles of lines with baited hooks dragged behind a boat -- capture bycatch animals (other fish, sharks, sea turtles, even birds) and drag them for hours until the line is hauled back in and the undesirables, now dead or crippled, are tossed aside as waste. Considering four bycatch per one intended catch is not unusual, these reckless fishing methods -- and long-lining is just one of them -- wreak havoc on our sealife. There's also overfishing, where the consumer demand for *more* is pushing some species to the brink of extinction. And it's not just wild species, either. Irresponsible farm management, like the shrimp farming that has permanently decimated coastal areas, has turned formerly flourishing waterways into a stagnant pit where nothing can survive. (I saw evidence of this a few years back on my way through Costa Rica and it is shocking. And the stench!) The allure of short-term money has trumped long-term repercussions for too long. We need to do something. And we can.

Until fishermen and restaurants cease to have a paying market for things like codfish or long-lined tuna or eel (a sushi favorite these days), they will keep doing whatever it takes to get these fish to our plates. There is a powerful opportunity we have here with our collective individual choices -- by what we spend our seafood dollars on -- to change the system. Get yourself a copy of the Seafood Watch guide. They're free and downloadable from the Monterey Bay Aquarium website. (There's even an iPhone app for it...if you're into that kind of thing.) There's a guide for each region of the country, and a new version that's hot off the presses this January specifically for sushi (I just sent you a wallet-sized hard copy of this one, my sashimi-loving little brother) that lists which kinds of the raw delicacies should be enjoyed freely, which are good alternatives, and which should be avoided. And don't be sad about avoiding the unsustainable "ebi" (eel): some sushi joints have started getting creative, serving "fauxbi," which is made with different fish but mimics the texture of the original and of course has the same delicious sauce. (It's way more convincing than, say, fake bacon.)

It was in the company of my lovely new friends Mack, Joan, and Clay on my way through Los Osos last night that I again had an opportunity to enjoy some fish tacos. This time -- unlike the unsustainable codfish tacos last week -- they were Alaskan salmon, wild-caught by a friend of theirs, and notably in the "enjoy" section of the Seafood Watch guide. I'm not sure if it was because they were really fresh, made with love, washed down with a cold beer, or because I knew that I was enjoying something sustainable, but they were almost impossibly delicious. It may have been all of these factors. (Oh, and the inclusion of 11-year-old Clay's secret fish taco sauce. I would bathe in the stuff if I could: it was that good. If I ever write "Bikeable Feast: The Cookbook" some day, that recipe will be in it....)

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